NFL Week 7 Preview

By David McDonnell

If Roger Goodell gets out of bed on Monday morning and no-one is talking about concussion, he’ll be a happy man.

There have been a number of high profile quarterback head injuries of late, most notably when Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa was carted off the field live on Thursday Night Football after suffering his second concussion in five days.

The previous Sunday, Tua had stumbled after getting up off the ground with an apparent concussion, only to surprisingly pass the head injury assessment and return to the field to lead his team to victory against the Ravens. Four days later when he was swung to the ground and his helmet bounced off the turf in Cincinnati, his body went into a spasm as the viewing audience feared for the worst.

We are now three weeks later and Tua has admitted he has no memory of the incident, which brought the NFL concussion protocol front-and-centre of the national debate. 

During this time, the NFL commissioner moved swiftly and fired the doctor who had cleared Tagovailoa to return against Baltimore. He then, along with the NFL Players Association amended the rules around the concussion protocol, which now prohibits a player from returning to play if that player shows ataxia, which is a term that describes impaired coordination and balance caused by head trauma.

This affair has already had an effect across the league and we have seen quarterbacks not return to the field of play every Sunday since the incident. The media attention this story created has certainly furthered the conversation around ‘second-concussion syndrome’ and will likely change the practice in other sports as has happened in the past.

Steelers v Dolphins

Another reason why Commissioner Goodell will be wary about this prime time Sunday night fixture is that Steelers’ rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has also been cleared to start after leaving mid-game last Sunday, also with a concussion.

Trailing at the time against the Bucs, his replacement Mitch Trubisky came on and was impressive in turning the contest in Pittsburgh’s favour. It leaves head coach Mike Tomlin with a difficult call to make and all indications are that he will start with the rookie. It might have been easier to go with the veteran this week, as Pickett had only 67 passing yards on 18 attempts before leaving the field.

The Steelers need to win this game and with a 2-4 record, a few more losses will put their season to bed and then Pickett will have a free reign as starter. Tomlin has said he doesn’t want a quarterback carousel and must feel that Pickett is his best option to lead this team to victory, especially as the Steelers are only one game away from the Bengals and Ravens who sit atop of the AFC North on records of 3-3.

The pressure is also on for Miami as they have recorded three losses in a row since Tua’s untimely departure, after starting the season 3-0 with him under centre.

With both starting tackles questionable for this game, Tua might need to get rid of the ball quickly on Sunday night but if he is afforded time in the pocket he should have a full receiving corp to choose from with Jalen Waddle, Tyreek Hill and the recently returned Cedrick Wilson providing speed in every direction. For this reason and their competitive defence, I like Miami for this game. 

Green Bay Packers @ Washington Commanders

Another team forced to change their quarterback in Week 7 are the Washington Commanders, after Carson Wentz was put on injured-reverse for at least four weeks with a hand injury. It leaves Taylor Heineke in the pivotal position and he was always game when he got the opportunity to start when Ryan Fitzpatrck got injured in the first game last season. 

Where Heineke is limited is where the Commanders want to attack, down the field with their four receivers who can all run the 40 in 4.3. Heineke is a smart decision maker but he lacks the arm strength that the top QBs in the NFL possess.  It doesn’t help that on Sunday, he will play behind a weak Commanders offensive line. 

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Washington might have found a diamond in the rough when they drafted Sam Howell in the fifth round. He impressed me in pre-season and certainly has the arm talent to throw downfield and also moves well in the pocket. What he needs to prove to his coaches is that he can throw the ball accurately as well as make good decisions consistently at an NFL level. I think it’s only a matter of when and not if, before he gets an extended start at quarterback.  

This is already a big game for the Commanders against Green Bay and a loss would effectively put a finish to their playoff hopes in the NFC East and mount pressure on Ron Rivera as head-coach. With the return of Chase Young likely within the next fortnight, he needs results to go his way to survive the next few weeks and a win against an under-performing Green Bay would be a great place to start. 

It might be a good time to play them too as the Packers are coming off London and Wisconsin losses against the resurgent New York Giants and New York Jets. 

They have two major issues at the moment. Primarily, Aaron Rodgers doesn’t seem to have built up enough trust with his new receivers. Doubs has flashed at times but on the big downs Rodgers routinely goes to find Allen Lezard and Randell Cobb, with the latter now out for an extended period after being put on injured reserve. With good timing, Sammy Watkins returns to the match-day squad and at least has the experience of delivering in bigger games and against better defensive backs than he will face on Sunday.

What has arguably been the biggest disappointment for the Packers has been their defence which looks better on paper than they are delivering on the field. They are lacking some pass rush ability but their secondary should be among the best in the business and their line-backing trio are strong with only Rashan Gary balling-out on a week-to-week basis. 

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt to get the W on the road this weekend. 

Chiefs @ 49ers

Talk of a 2020 Superbowl rematch, between the Chiefs and the Niners, was derailed on Thursday Night after the Niners pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Carolina Panthers for Christian McCaffery.

The final piece of the puzzle?

It was a major surprise as all the noise the previous weekend was that the star running-back was on his way to Buffalo. In the trade San Francisco took quite a hefty gamble by giving up second, third, fourth and fifth round picks over the next two drafts to secure the services of a player who has spent most of the last two seasons in the treatment room trying to get healthy.

If McCaffery can stay fit, I think it’s a super signing as he will suit the zone-running scheme that head coach Kyle Shanahan runs very successfully. He will also give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a good passing option out the backfield. 

If you remember what Shanahan did with his running backs when he was offensive coordinator in Atlanta, this could be a key move as the 49ers figuratively push all their chips into the middle of the table to win the Superbowl this season. 

They have plenty of reasons to be optimistic with their struggles on offence looking to be clearing. The return of left tackle Trent Williams is not far away and Deebo has continued his impressive dual-threat form of last season. George Kittle has returned to fitness at tight end and Brandon Aiyuk has made a significant improvement as a wide-out option.

Last Sunday, McCaffery had 168 yards from scrimmage in his last game as a Panther and his addition to the 49er attack will leave at least two of the aforementioned four weapons in one-on-one coverage on every drive.

With what is, in my opinion, the best defence in the NFL this season, they are in a Superbowl window and Jimmy G will have little or no excuses if he doesn’t succeed.

In my opinion, this trade is a risk worth taking for general manager John Lynch and Shanahan. Worst case scenario,  McCaffery doesn’t stay healthy, the season goes to pot and it signals the end of their era in the Bay Area. 

And then it will be left to the next guy to pick up the pieces, with almost no draft picks in May.

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